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Thursday, Aug. 14, 2003 02:20 pm

The highway side

The next installment of our central Illinois detective novel. Part thirteen: “Nick meets 'Crazy Uncle Moe' ”


I had an aisle seat in business class. The guy sitting by the window kept fiddling with his reclining chair. He was up, he was down, he was back, he was forth. He was wasting his charms on the stewardess--calling her dear, sweetheart, doll, and hon--as she kept him stocked with tiny bottles of scotch and fresh ice. He'd pour half the bottle, then stow the remainder. I was nursing a cup of coffee and paging through police reports, which were typed entirely in capital letters. Every so often, I'd feel the guy by the window reading along.

"On the above date at 1:50 A.M.," Sheriff Archer wrote, "I was parked on Illinois Rt. 109 just east of the intersection of Sawyer County Rt. 12. I observed a tractor trailer rig (vehicle #1) exit Interstate 55 using the northbound ramp. Near the bottom of the ramp the truck pulled to the shoulder and stopped.

"At 1:55 A.M., a second tractor trailer rig (vehicle #2) came down the same ramp and stopped behind vehicle #1. Both drivers exited their vehicles and held a brief conversation. It appeared one of them urinated at this time. Both drivers then returned to their vehicles and the vehicles continued down the ramp to Illinois Rt. 109 and proceeded eastbound on Illinois Rt. 109. I observed both vehicles roll through the stop sign on Illinois Rt. 109 where it intersects with Sawyer County Rt. 12. I then requested a second unit and initiated a traffic stop."

I went back through the report with my pen and circled "Both drivers exited their vehicles," "urinated," and "proceeded eastbound on Illinois Rt. 109." Just for good measure I circled the other three Illinois Rt. 109s too.

"You need a highlighter," the guy by the window said.

"Allergic to yellow," I said without looking up.

The report continued: "Upon speaking to the driver of vehicle #1, Rudy Valdez, I was told that the subject did not speak English, only Spanish. I then advised subject (in English) why I had stopped him and requested his driver's license, vehicle registration, and log book, all of which he produced. The subject appeared to understand English. He also appeared to be extremely nervous.

"Upon examining the log book, I noticed that the subject was on a trip from Los Angeles to Chicago but the last entry in the log had been made in Amarillo, Texas, approximately 20 hours before. When I questioned subject about this, his only answer was to repeat that he did not speak English.

"By this time Deputy Engram had arrived on the scene and had started a motor carrier inspection of vehicle #1. I then turned my attention to vehicle #2.

"The driver of vehicle #2, Jesse Lopez, also appeared to be extremely nervous. I advised him why I had stopped his vehicle and requested his driver's license, registration, and log book, all of which he produced. The log showed his last stop had been in Cuba, Missouri, approximately four hours earlier, and that he was also on a trip from Los Angeles to Chicago. I then asked what he was hauling and he stated grapefruit, producing an invoice that showed the fruit had been paid for in cash.

"Upon examining his log book, I observed he had been off duty for 6 days before beginning the trip in California. I asked why. He stated that they had to wait for the grapefruit to be picked. He further stated that the boss, Mr. Morales, had paid his airfare back to Chicago so he could wait there and then fly back to California when the fruit was ready to be loaded. I advised Lopez that I was going to do a motor carrier inspection on his vehicle.

"Upon completing the inspection, I issued subject a traffic citation for failure to stop at a stop sign, then returned all his documents and advised him he was free to go. I then asked if he had anything illegal in the vehicle and he said, 'No, do you want to look?' After receiving written consent to search the vehicle, I requested assistance from K-9 unit.

"Upon the arrival of Deputy Bowman and his K-9 Red, the trailer was opened and Deputy Bowman and the K-9 entered and worked their way to the front of the trailer, at which point K-9 alerted on the front wall. Deputy Bowman informed me that the dog had detected the presence of illegal drugs in the trailer.

"I entered the trailer. At the very front, I observed a metal plate that appeared newly installed. This was the location K-9 appeared to be trained on. I then requested a walk-around of vehicle #1. Deputy Bowman and K-9 completed walk-around and Deputy Bowman informed me that the dog had alerted on the right front corner of the semi-trailer of vehicle #1.

"Both subjects were placed under arrest. Swampland A-OK Towing arrived and removed the vehicles to the McKinley Truck Stop in McKinley, where 15 pallets of grapefruits were unloaded from each trailer. At this time I entered trailer of vehicle #1 and observed a newly installed metal plate at the very front of trailer. Metal plates from both trailers were removed. In the hollow space behind the plates, I observed multiple plastic wrapped packages. Upon opening one package from each trailer, I observed a white flaky material that field-tested positive as cocaine. The packages were then numbered. I removed from vehicle #1 a total of 492 packages weighing 1073.3 pounds, and from vehicle #2 a total of 461 packages weighing 1008.1 pounds--a total of 2081.4 pounds.

"U.S. currency of $5,491 was seized ($278 from Lopez, $4,213 from Valdez), along with one TV, 30 pallets of grapefruit, and subjects' driver's licenses. Log books and assorted paperwork were also entered into evidence. Both subjects were transported to the Sawyer County Sheriff Headquarters for processing."

I circled the money, the dog, and the amount of cocaine.

"Jesus H. Christ," the guy next to me whispered.

I turned to the next report, an interview with Jesse Lopez in the Sawyer County Jail.

"Two thousand pounds of cocaine," the guy was still whispering, "you know what that's worth?"

"A lot of money," I said without looking up.

"Try $20,000 a kilo," he said.

"That's all?" I looked up as he unscrewed the cap on a half-full bottle of scotch and downed the remains in one gulp.

"That's wholesale," he said. "On the street, it's probably more like $100,000. That's after it's cut, packaged, and distributed. But the top dog, he only gets a piece of that--2,000 pounds, I figure his piece would probably come to, oh, I don't know, somewhere around $10,000,000."

"A lot of money," I said again.

"So you think you can get him off?"

"Get who off?"

"The top dog," he said, and out came another half bottle of scotch and a repeat performance.

"I'm not sure I'm getting you?" I said.

"See, first I thought you were a cop. You've kinda got that look, and here you are reading police reports. But if you were a cop, you wouldn't be flying business class, would you? Same for prosecutor. You'd be in back with the extras. So that leaves defense attorney. But you're not just anybody's lawyer. You've got to be the top dog's, because if you were working for a mule, one of these truck drivers say, you'd still be in back."

"Maybe I got bumped up a grade."

"No, you don't fly enough. Believe me, I can tell. This is my second home."

"The pilot's an old army buddy."

"Hey, I didn't think of that one," the guy said. "That's good--shows you can think on your feet. But the pilot's a tomato and that puts you right back in the courtroom." He'd found another half-bottle somewhere and started to unscrew the cap.

"You better take it easy with that stuff," I said.

He recapped the bottle, then winked. "So how'm I doin'? You gonna give it up?"

"I think it's your turn," I said.

He laughed. "You don't recognize me, do you? I'm sorry. I'm Joey Whalen. I'm just so used to people knowing who I am."

The name sounded vaguely familiar. I took a closer look. He was a trim guy with light blue eyes. He had two bushy eyebrows and a tiny ponytail, but almost no other hair. He squinted, which made him look like a sinister Mr. Clean.

"You're an actor."

He pointed a finger at himself. "Crazy Uncle Moe," he said.


"Man, you gotta get out more. That's the one movie everybody knows. Where'd you think I got all those numbers about coke?"

"I thought you might be in the business."

"Crazy Uncle Moe. I'm the undercover cop who falls in love with the girlfriend of the biggest dealer in Miami. Very last scene, I'm on my hands and knees, trying to snort cocaine that was knocked onto the carpet during the raid. And I look up, right into the camera, and I've got this big piece of shag carpeting coming out of one nostril, like some oversized booger, and I say, 'I should be the one in jail!' And they run the credits right over my tears. It was really, really, powerful."

"I think I saw it," I said. "The undercover cop keeps falling off his motorcycle, right?"

"No, no, no. You're thinking of Tomorrow We Kick. That's where Ed Gray and Julia Barnes are both on their hands and knees snorting cocaine off a dirty bathroom floor. But it wasn't the last scene."

"Oh, yeah, it was a bathroom," I remembered.

"Mine was in the living room of this beautiful penthouse overlooking Miami Beach with this really gaudy shag carpeting. And it was a total ad-lib, very last scene. That's what people remember. That's what they walk out of the theater with."

He uncapped the bottle and polished it off. "So now you gotta tell me . . ."

"You were right," I said.

"Mr. Big. I knew it. See, when you do movies, you really learn about people, about whatever they're into. You know, I used to do a fair amount myself."

"Legal work?"

"Blow," he whispered. "But you get a bit older, you realize you don't really need drugs. But every once in a while I still get the urge."

"No, I think you're right," I said. "You don't need drugs."


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